Interview with Writer and Editor Sheila McMullin
WG: Sheila, a rather unique book with the title The Day Tajon Got Shot has just been released from Shout Mouse Press. What is unusual about the book is that it was written by middle school aged girls in Washington, DC as a reaction to the Black Lives Matter movement. You had considerable involvement in this project. Can you talk about how it all got started?
First, I want to thank you for making space to talk about The Day Tajon Got Shot and to name the teen writers who worked tirelessly over the past two year to create this book: T'asia, J'yona, Reiyanna, Jonae, Makiya, Rose, Najae, Serenity, Jeanet, Temil.
Tajon has been Shout Mouse Press' most ambitious book to date, and I think the best way of knowing how the project got started is hearing it from the girls themselves. You can listen to a 30 minute interview with Najae and Kathy Crutcherm Shout Mouth Founder, on Washington DC's own Kojo Nmandi Show as well as this 3 minute video news report from WUSA 9.
For those who want the skinny, Shout Mouse Press is a nonprofit writing program and publishing house that amplifies unheard voices. In March 2015, ten teen girls from Beacon House, a community-based organization in the Edgewood Terrace community in NE Washington, DC, started writing this novel during the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. They began with one central question: What really happens in a community when a black youth is the victim of violence by police? How are those individual lives affected?
Each writer took on the perspective of a central character – the victim, the police officer, the witness, the parent, the friend, the officer's kids – and examines how it feels to be a human being on all sides of this event. Their stories thoughtfully explore issues of race, violence, loyalty, and justice in a community torn apart but seeking connection. You can check shoutmousepress.org for even more background on the book and the organization!
WG: At one point did you come into the project, or perhaps I should ask, how did you come to be involved with it?
It has always been at my heart's center to work with youth and particularly encourage their storytelling skills. I love occupying that imaginative and boundless creative space with them as it energizes my own creativity as it reenergizes my own creativity. I also think writing workshops with youth can be authentic mentoring opportunities, as youth are able to guide the narrative from their own heart�s intent and as a coach or support, I can help them think through whatever problem they are working through at that moment, fictional or otherwise.
I believe the creative confidence storytelling builds in youth is what can really foster their ability to understand their own heart and the role they'd like to play in their own lives and their community. I believe encouraging youth this way, makes all of us stronger, more thoughtful, and empathetic to perspectives unlike our own. At least, I feel all these things.
In the more personal realm, in my mid-20s, I was assaulted with a deadly weapon and robbed, and while this incident immediately made me a different person, it wasn't so much the event itself that traumatized me, but what unfolded afterward. It forced me to confront myself in ways I wasn't prepared to, and had to renegotiate who I was with myself. I started working with Shout Mouse Press when I was doing a lot of identity rebuilding work. By being a support and amplifier to community voices that have overwhelmingly been undermined, distorted or plainly ignored, was putting my heart back together and think about my own story.
In addition to writing support for this Black Lives Matter book, I also wrote with high school students from Ballou in Anacostia. Together we were working on their scholarship and college essay applicants and turned those works into an incredible non-fiction photo collection called Humans of Ballou. Definitely check out this this Washington Post article praising Ballou 2017 graduating seniors for their 100% rate of students both applying to and getting accepted into college!
Working with many of young authors coming from under-resourced schools, low-income neighborhoods, they told me stories that no child should have to be dealing with. But these authors always kept moving forward and with the incredible support of crucial people in their lives like of their teachers, pastors, coaches and family they kept their passion close to them. I was always so honored, that they would choose to share such intimate and vulnerable experiences with me. I do not take this lightly and hold their stories with great respect. I believe it is my duty, when asked and when able, to create or provide platforms for their stories in whichever way best expressed and for me to do the same with mine.
WG: Can you describe a bit more about what the actual process of writing the book was like? What things did the young authors have to learn as writers? To what extent did you have to hold back on your on your own impulses as a writer (and poet, at that) to keep the raw feel of the story?
With Tajon we were working with young writers who had varying levels of writing experience. Some had worked on Trinitoga, a novel-in-stories published 2014, and wrote poetry almost every day. Some girls had done very little writing, and what they had done at school was mostly for exams. So, our role as story coaches was to meet each writer where they were and encourage them along throughout the process.
Absolutely this was a tricky process because we were working with ten writers who all had strong and smart opinions. Negotiating each writer's input for the direction of the story was ever complicated and needed many a brainstorming session and timeline diagram, and in the end, the girls were always able to resolved disagreements on plot points through guided debate and compromise for what would be the best for the story.
As a story coach, I often worked with the writers one-on-one to map their characters and chapter(s). At Shout Mouse Press, we value the integrity of the writer's voice. Often times through frequent testing and lack of diversity in texts that students read, that voice gets manipulated to sound like everything else they've heard, and the voice that is coming straight from the heart gets quieted and pushed to the side.
So, one thing we do to help keep that inner editor at bay in these beginning writing stages, is actually type for the writer as she speaks aloud her storyline. This has two main benefits: 1) the writer tends to feel less self-conscious when riffing aloud and the story coach can preserve nuances in dialogue and tone, and 2) as the "seasoned writers in the room" and by having close tabs on each of the writers storylines, values, and big up-coming plot points all writers will eventually need to hit, we could become directional guides as we go along by interjecting with comments and questions. Additionally, as we�re typing for the writer we can ask her to go into more detail in a certain moment to bring it to life, suggest an insertion of dialogue, or perhaps complicate the emotions arc more. So basically we are editing as we go along in the form of diving deeper into scene with the writer and by keeping an internal catalogue of where each writer is and how we�ll eventually line everything up.
And more often than not, it�s not so much that I feel the need to hold back my own creative impulses (though I guess you could argue that I do interject my own style when asking them to go into more detail in one area rathe than another), but instead I find myself super jealous of some of the lines they write and wishing I created that myself! Again, I am incredibly honored when youth trust me enough to share space and time with me, so I respect them by building a relationship where they take lead on their storytelling and I�m there as back-up when needed and to provide my own expertise to help create the final product.
WG: I'd like to dig just a bit more into your last comments Can you give us an example of a particular issue or situation in which the writers had to come together to resolve an issue – what were the varying opinions and what was the eventual compromise? I also think that your comment about the lack of diversity in texts for students is an important one for perspective writers, so I am interested to know how you worked with the writers to separate their own personal voices from the voice of the character they were assuming. It is enough of a challenge for adult writers so I imagine it was also a challenge for you.
Without giving away any spoilers, the best example of a major plot point the writers had to all come together over was on the fate of one of our main characters. Half of the girls wanted the character to go in one direction which was more or less the happy ending while the other half felt very strongly about it going the other way.
The girls were passionate about their opinions, so to help them explore their own thoughts more deeply and help understand the view points of each other, we had two different kinds of conversation: We had 1) the "feelings conversation". This focused mainly on why they wanted the outcome they did and how they would feel if it didn't go their way. Then 2) we had the "what was best for the book" conversation, which moved away from our personal feelings of what we wanted, and asked critical questions about character development, narrative climax and resolution.
What we all realized was that the girls who wanted the "happy ending" wanted this because it was what they wanted to be true in the world they are living in. Writing the happy ending was moment for them to rewrite prevailing narratives about their neighborhoods and communities.
And while we all truly believe that writing world you want to see because you believe in kindness and a bit of good fortune, does indeed inspire the world to be a better place, in the end the girls chose to go in a direction that was not so happy, and not so emotionally easy to write.
This decision was finally made to underscore issues of racial inequality and community injustice that the girls had originally set out to make by writing this book.
Our compromise at the end of the book, is one that always gives me goosebumbs. To conclude the book, the writers left the fictional world and spoke as themselves about that world they want to live in and want to help create. They also pay respect to too many men and women of color who were unarmed and killed by law enforcement officers.
This book is also very visual, so we had opportunity for the young writers to include photographs and drawings to help express themselves. They created tweets and newspaper headlines documenting the uprising in Tajon's community. It brings the whole book to life.
While the girls were writing a fictional story, truly so much of it was pulled from lived experience – not only from what the writers were seeing through the media with the Black Lives Matter movement, but from DC's own police-community tensions, the history of civil unrest and the uprisings of the 60s, which many of these girls grandparents and family members lived through. These girls were writing during the 2015 Baltimore protests, a stone's throw from DC. The mission of Shout Mouse Press is to amplify unheard voices, and so even though Tajon is a fictional story the goal was always to help create the opportunity for these young women of color to explore and express their personal voice.
Personal narrative is a beautiful tool of discovery, and sometimes for young writers (adult writers too, of course) saying that some things are made up is easier to do to be able to speak more freely and honestly.
One of my favorite scenes in the whole is written by J'yona and it's a passionate and furious riot scene, which was caught on camera and later replayed on the news. The character, Kayla, saw herself on tv yet didn't recognize that girl causing damage to property. From that Kayla resolves to use her anger and energy to organize people to protest and find justice a different way. From an outsiders perspective, it really looked like this writer was working through some personal things with this scene. I think if we focused too much on the "craft" of voice, we might have lost some of that fire.
Though, Shout Mouse is still a publishing house and we do take craft seriously. It was always important for us story coaches when working on character development to talk about how each one of their characters, no matter if they are the protagonist or antagonist of the story, is born with dignity and also deserves to be flawed. Two examples of this really stand out in the characters of Pete, the white police officer who shoots Tajon, and Bobby, the drug dealing thug.
Both Pete and Bobby were given thoughtful backstories that complicate a readers understanding of why they have become who they are and how they could act in the way they do. The strength of Bobby lies in the fact that Na'jae was able to create such a detailed and full history that Bobby's voice became clear. Bobby, we learn, had lost his best friend in a shooting and is compensating for a lot of fear, guilt, and lack of certainty in his own future. While his actions are not always justified, one begins to see how he has become trapped by a society that stopped investing in him. Pete, written by Rose who is not a man or white or middle aged or a cop or has children, but was able to step into this character because she picked out traits of him that she could identify with. She doesn't know what it's like to be a father, but she knows what it's like to have a father and wrote from her knowledge of being a daughter. Despite the atrocity of Pete's actions, Rose still allowed him to have a heart and worries. She pulled from how she feels when she's anxious and has concern for her family, and was able to create a 3 dimensional character.
With each of the characters there were opportunities for us to adjust dialogue, for example, helping Pete to sound less like a teenage girl and more like a middle-aged cop, giving Tajon's friends and sister unique personality traits and conflicts that had to individually and collectively overcome. All in all, that part was the relative easy part after the writers had established what kind of human being their character was going to be.
WG: It sounds as though you, Shout Mouse and all of the young authors involved have come up with that deserves a wide reading, and I certainly hope it gets one. In writing the book was there a particular audience in mind – possibly other readers the authors' age? In what ways do you hope readers will benefit from this book?
Absolutely we are hoping readers the authors� age will pick up this book and hold it as a motivating object that their voices too are deserving of wide audiences and that that there is no prerequisite age for storytelling and being active participants in your community. I hope this book encourages people to tell the story of their lives and communities, to celebrate those lives and communities.
And to reiterate, although this book is written by youth, it is not a children�s book. It operates on a mature level, and I hope this encourages adults to provide more platforms for our youth to speak truth to power and regard youth as experts of their own environment.
WG: Before winding up this interview, is there anything else you would like to add?
I hope this book gets taught in classrooms, in restorative justice circles, and as a civic engagement tool and resource. People have the right to be angry, to protest, and demand accountability from our civic leaders. I hope people take Tajon as an opportunity to investigate the power structures within their own communities and support diverse representation within those structures.
Shout Mouse is a grass roots effort working to compliment and uplift the crucial work of partner community organizations. One of the ways you survive in grassroots organizing is by word of mouth, so Wordgathering and I am so grateful to you for being a microphone for Tajon and these young authors. Dear readers, thank you so much for taking the time to hear about this story.
For those wanting to read the book for yourselves, it is available at ShoutMousePress.org along with many other incredible books, in DC Public Libraries, and DC Public School Libraries.